(Note: This post was first published by the News Sentinel, HERE and updates previous post HERE.)
State Rep. Andy Holt is urging Tennesseans to ignore traffic camera tickets and emphasizing his point by burning a citation in a video that apparently has received more than 325,000 Facebook views.
“What do you do if you get one? Throw it in the trash. Personally, I prefer to burn mine,” says Holt, R-Dresden, in a lengthy news release issued in conjunction with posting the video on his Facebook page Wednesday, which shows him using a cigarette lighter to set the ticket aflame.
But Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said in an email Thursday that Holt is not offering sound advice.
“No one likes to be caught violating traffic offenses, regardless of how they are caught, but they have a legal obligation to properly address it. Burning a citation or throwing it away is an emotional response that may feel good, but it does not make the violation and accountability go away,” Rausch said.
Holt, a longtime critic of traffic camera tickets who has repeatedly called for banning them outright in Tennessee, was joined by state Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, this year in sponsoring a bill, HB2510, that requires all citations resulting from a traffic camera video to include this notice:
“Non-payment of this (citation) cannot adversely affect your credit score or report, driver’s license, and/or automobile insurance rates.”
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 92-2 vote in the House. It took effect when signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on April 27.
Holt said in pushing the measure that the new notice simply makes those drivers getting the tickets aware of what state law already says — that traffic camera tickets are not reported to insurance companies or credit agencies and have no impact on the state’s “points” system for keeping track of traffic violations issued directly by law enforcement officers. Drivers accumulating enough points can face extra penalties, including suspension of a license.
Rausch, the current president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, voiced concern about the bill when it was pending in the Legislature earlier this year. He and Maggi Duncan, the lobbyist for the association, told a reporter then the bill implies there are no consequences for ignoring a citation.
Legally speaking, the camera citations are treated as a civil penalty, not as a misdemeanor criminal offense as when an officer directly writes a ticket. The maximum civil penalty is $50. If the penalty goes unpaid, Rausch and Duncan said, collection efforts can be pursued, just as with any other unpaid debt.
Holt contends the companies operating traffic cameras under contract with Tennessee cities are themselves violating a provision of state law that says only a commissioned law enforcement officer can review video or photos of drivers running red lights or speeding to determine whether any violation occurs. The lawmaker says the two leading companies in contracting for traffic cameras in Tennessee — RedFlex Holdings Inc., headquartered in Australia, and American Traffic Solutions Inc., based in Arizona — openly promote their practice of having company personnel review the tapes before passing on suspected violations for police officer review.
“How can the millions of dollars in traffic camera citations that have been issued in the state of Tennessee be valid if the law was clearly broken to issue them in the first place? In my opinion, they aren’t,” Holt said.
The legislator said traffic camera companies and city police departments have been using “coercion and false legal threats” to prod violators into paying the $50 tickets and the bill was intended to stop such things. But he said in Union City in West Tennessee, officials have added a sentence: “Payment is required by law.” He said that is “yet another lie” designed to undermine the new law.
Holt also complains about the “fiscal note” by the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee staff, an estimate of his bill’s impact on finances of local governments collecting revenue from traffic camera tickets. He contends the fiscal note was based on data from “a lobbying group that gets paid countless dollars to keep cameras up and operating.”
The fiscal note appearing on the legislative website Thursday says the staff “could not obtain complete data” on revenue collected as a result of traffic cameras, but cites two Middle Tennessee towns — Murfreesboro and Gallatin — and suggests revenue loss for those two cities would be about $30,000 per year, roughly 3 percent of the total they collect.
“The proposed language being printed on the citation is expected to reduce overall fine collections for unmanned traffic enforcement camera violations. The extent of any such reduction is unknown, but is reasonably estimated to exceed 3 percent,” says the fiscal note.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lists 19 Tennessee cities using traffic cameras to ticket drivers running red lights — including Knoxville and Farragut — and 14 cities using the cameras to ticket drivers for speeding violations.
In 2015, Holt successfully sponsored legislation that bans new contracts for use of the cameras to issue speeding tickets. But that law included a provision allowing contracts in place at the time it took effect — July 1, 2015 — to continue using the cameras. Holt says some cities used that provision to quickly renew their contracts to avoid the ban, in some cases for up to 20 years.
Darrell DeBusk, spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department, said Rausch has seen the Holt video. The chief was unavailable for an interview Thursday, but wrote in the email:
“I am hopeful that Rep. Holt is not encouraging people to disregard a legal obligation to answer an allegation of a violation either by challenging the charge in a court or remitting the fine.”